Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
Proper 9 - Year A

Other texts:

Following the missionary discourse (10:1-42), which ended with Jesus talking about ways people will "welcome" and "reject" the missionaries, and a transitional verse (11:1) that indicates that Jesus continued his ministry (alone?) while the apostles were on their journey, we have a chapter of primarily negative reactions to Jesus' (and to the disciples' and to John's) words and deeds.

Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading) calls Matthew 11 "Responding to Jesus." He introduces it with:

The logic of the gospel's narrative emerges. While 1:1-4:16 emphasizes God's initiative in commissioning Jesus, and 4:17-11:1 shows how Jesus faithfully carries out this commission in his words (chs. 5-7, 10) and actions (chs 8-9), 11:2-16:20 indicates the necessity of discerning Jesus' identity from his actions and words, and of responding with commitment or rejection. [p. 249]

He outlines it as follows (which includes some verses not assigned for this Sunday):

1. 11:2-19 -- The Identity of and Negative Response to Jesus and John

a. 11:2-6 -- John's question about Jesus' identity
b. 11:7-15 -- Jesus' statement about John's identity
c. 11:16-19 -- The negative response to and rejection of both

2. 11:20-24 -- The Negative Response to Jesus

a. 11:20 -- Statement of rejection of Jesus
b. 11:21-24 -- Curses on Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum

3. 11:25-30 -- The Revelation of Jesus' Identity to the "Infants"

a. 11:25-26 -- The positive response of the "infants"
b. 11:27 -- Jesus the Revealer
c. 11:28-30 -- Jesus invites the weary and burdened to respond. [p. 249]

John questions Jesus' identity. Jesus speaks about the greatness of John. If John is confused about Jesus, if the greatest of prophets is sitting in prison, did the apostles experience similar rejections during their journeys? What responses should we expect from others if we are to live and witness to our faith in Jesus? Our assigned text begins by talking about further rejection.


Carter (Matthew and the Margins) notes that the opening clause, "to what will I compare" is a formula used often in God's lawsuits against the people (Is 40:18, 25) [p. 253]. We should not expect a good critique by Jesus.

The following quotes, with a number of different interpretations on the images, come from Douglas R. A. Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentary).

This generation" (v. 16) refers to the majority of Jesus' contemporaries who refuse to believe that he is the inaugurator of the age of fulfillment. They are here compared with children who cannot play together happily.

The parable of the children, according to interpreters familiar with Near Eastern customs, reflects gender roles. The round dance that occurred at weddings, accompanied by flutes, was performed by men, while mourning, often done by professionals, was women's work. Thus the parable may represent the girls as reproaching the boys for being unwilling to play wedding, while the boys counter that the girls refuse to play funeral. Another suggestion is that the children who criticize their friends for not cooperating are the lazy ones: they want to play the easy roles and expect the others to engage in the more strenuous dancing and loud wailing. A third possibility is that some or all of the children are being bossy, claiming the right to 'call the shots.'" [p. 123]

In its present context the parable is open to several different interpretations, depending on whether or not it is regarded as an allegory concerning John and Jesus. If it is allegorical, there are two main possibilities. The children who propose "Let's play marriage!" can represent Jesus, who joyfully announces the arrival of the kingdom, while those who say, "Let's play funeral!" stand for John and his stern warning of coming judgment. On the other hand, the children who do the speaking can be seen as "this generation," who want the dour John to dance and Jesus the preacher of joy to mourn. If the parable is not allegorized, "this generation" is perhaps being compared to neither group of children (those speaking or those being addressed) but to the interaction: children who cannot respond positively to any suggestion end up playing nothing. Jesus' contemporaries prefer to sit on the sidelines uninvolved rather than take seriously either of God's end-time messengers." [pp 123-124]

The point of the saying is clear: this generation is able to "write off" John because of his abstention from normal social intercourse and Jesus for exactly the opposite reason, because of his banqueting with sinners. In this way, both are dismissed as irrelevant." [p. 124]


Both John and Jesus are rejected because of their deeds -- either eating and drinking too little or too much and with the wrong people. It is what they do that gets them in trouble. John questions Jesus because he has heard in prison about "the deeds [ergon] of the Christ" (11:2). Could it be that John is wondering why Jesus has not freed him if he really is the one who is to come? How do we continue to believe in Jesus when miracles don't come to us?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good deeds [ergon] and give glory to your Father in heaven" (5:16). This section ends with Jesus saying: "Yet wisdom is vindicated [dikaioo] by her deeds" 11:19). (Luke has "Wisdom is vindicated by all her children" [7:35])

What do we do with all this talk about deeds? We have the saying: "Actions speak louder than words." There is also the biblical statement: "You will know them by their fruits" (Mt 7:16). The things people do are better indicators of what they believe than just the things they say. As I've mentioned in other notes, we need to ask, "What difference does it make that you believe," rather than simply, "What do you believe?" We are not saved by our deeds, but I believe we have to stress that our deeds witness to what we believe. There is an evangelical purpose to doing good deeds.

However, the only other time "is vindicated" [dikaioo] is used in Mt, it seems to be center on words: "for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (12:37).

However, within the context, it really refers to one's heart:

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to given an account [logos] for every careless word [rhema] you utter; for by your words [logos] you will be justified, and by your words [logos] you will be condemned. [Mt 12:34-37 -- note that neither these verses nor any others in ch. 12 are assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary.]

Matthew had already established that words [logos] are powerful (8:8, 16), and that one who speaks a word [logos] against the Son of Man will be forgiven but one who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven (12:32). Our words indicate our inner attitude towards Christ and what he offers us. They are to be like our deeds: a witness to our relationship with God. Thus we can say that our words and deeds are witness to what we believe. We might ask, "If people only heard your words and saw your actions Monday through Saturday, what would they conclude about your beliefs?"

What is the "wisdom" that is vindicated? Matthew uses sophia to refer to Solomon's wisdom and how it attracted listeners from the ends of the earth (12:42) and by implication, Jesus' greater wisdom, which "this generation" ignored. When Jesus' hometown folks heard him teach, they asked, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?" (13:54) They "took offense at him".

Thus, "wisdom" is a human attribute which properly comes as a gift from God in opposition to the "wise and intelligent" of v. 25. It would seem that the indication whether or not one's wisdom is from God or not, is through the words and deeds that flow out of that wisdom. Do they witness to God's power or something else?

The next section of Matthew 11 indicates a lack of response to Jesus' wisdom -- his words and deeds. These verses are not part of our assigned lesson (I wonder why), but I think that it's important to look at these verses -- especially on a Fourth of July weekend.

WOES TO THREE JEWISH CITIES (11:20-24) [Not part of the lesson]

In this section, whole towns are upbraided by Jesus for not repenting. Jesus doesn't just threaten judgment, he declares it. These harshest of Jesus' words are directed towards those who don't repent.

In Matthew, Jesus doesn't criticize anyone for not worshiping or praising God or him. The one time he is critical of those who don't believe, it is also connected with repentance (21:32). A deed that is required by Jesus is repentance (here corporately, but elsewhere also individually). I don't believe that one can be a Christian without repentance. It also appears that "deeds of power" are not meant to produce awe or wonder among the people, but repentance.

Why don't these towns repent? Daniel Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith) observes that the only difference between the two groups of cities is that the repentant towns are Gentile cities and the unrepentant are Israelite cities. Then concludes that they are unwilling to relate to Jesus' message and deeds and thus repent because they are Israelite!

Why is that a problem? The criticism of Capernaum illustrates the problem. They assume their privileged relationship with God will guarantee their "exaltation to heaven". It is their perception of their special relationship with God which leads to the rejection of Jesus and their need to repent, and thus their condemnation. For Israelites (or Americans, or even Christians) who assume a privileged position with God, that assumption could be their downfall as it can lead to the conclusion, "We don't need to repent" or "We have nothing to repent of." Such people are condemned by their words.

Hare also makes the point that the unresponsive towns are condemned corporately. "The communities are composed primarily of unresponsive individuals, each of whom must render account at the judgment. Individuals, however, are shaped in part by communities. Each town or village develops its own ethos. Some nurture faith in God, while others discourage it. . . . Community leaders must remember that they can help shape an ethos that takes human values more seriously than dollars and thus encourages openness to what God is doing in our midst." [p. 126]

What would happen if we used July 3 to pronounce woes on America for its arrogance or assumed privileged position with God, and call it to repent? That it will be more tolerable for the most sinful of cities/countries than for us? Should that be proclaimed? Could it threaten our position as pastor in some of our congregations? Should such fears determine what we preach?

Note: I don't have answers to these questions, but they are some that I struggle with -- nearly every Fourth of July weekend -- and even more so after attending a continuing ed event centered on mission and American civil religion. A speaker, Roger Fjeld, pointed out that the Fourth of July is the first [and perhaps most sacred] of our civil holy days. I also found it interesting that civil religion keeps a belief in God, e.g., in God we trust, one nation under God; but it doesn't want Jesus. In looking at the "patriotic" hymns in our hymnal, none of them mention Jesus!

First of all, Jesus is too divisive. He says that he didn't come to bring peace, but divisions. Our many denominations are an indication of that. We want a United States.

Secondly, we also don't want a vulnerable God who is born, suffers, and dies. We want a God of success. Certainly, Sam Walton or Bill Gates, are more like the American ideal of success than Jesus (or even John). Both are executed for their beliefs, words, and deeds. As Robert Capon writes: Our kind of Messiah ... wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying." [Hunting the Divine Fox, p. 91]

Thirdly, Fjeld also mentioned that civil religion removes the need for repentance -- the central proclamation of Jesus. We believe that we are right and good -- the best nation on earth -- beliefs that don't lead to repentance. That is, admitting that we are wrong and bad and haven't lived up to God's expectations of us and we don't have the power to change ourselves or make ourselves better. Remember how unwilling some former presidents were to admit their faults (think Watergate and Monicagate)?

One could play it safe, like the lectionary creators and just skip over these verses. However, removing Jesus from religion is removing what is essential from Christianity -- as the next section of our text indicates.

COME TO ME (11:25-30)

Verses 25-27 are also found in Lu 10:21-22, thus indicating a Q source.

Verses 28-30 are found only in Matthew.

The unrepentant towns and perhaps the non-playing children are the "wise and intelligent" in this section. In contrast to the wisdom of Solomon and of Jesus, which was recognized as coming from God; these "wise and intelligent" are people who rely on their own abilities. They won't listen to the "wisdom" of Jesus (or disciples or pastors who speak for Jesus?). They will misinterpret the deeds of the faithful.

In contrast to the "wise and intelligent" and the unrepentant towns, there are little children [nepios]. Literally, the Greek word means "not speaking," so it refers to infants prior to their learning to speak. The other occurrence of this word is in 21:16 where Mt quotes Psalm 8:3 LXX: "Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself." [Does this quote suggest that the nonsensical sounds of infants can praise God? Perhaps in the same way that the inanimate things and lower animals praise God in Psalm 148:7-10?]

What might this say about the way we plan worship, the level of understanding necessary to participate in worship (e.g., being able to read), or for reception of Holy Communion? What does God intend to teach us about faith from such infants?

What does Jesus mean by "reveal" [apokalypto] and what is revealed to whom? Of the four instances of this verb in Mt (10:26, 11:25, 27; 16:17), the last one is most significant. It is Mt's addition after Peter's confession: "And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.'"

The who? Peter -- so nepios can't mean just babbling infants; but there is something about infants and Peter (in contrast to the "wise and intelligent") that allows them to receive God's revelation. Perhaps for all of us who at times feel dumb and foolish -- this can be great news!

On this "Independence Day" weekend, we might need to stress our need to be "dependent" on God -- like an infant is dependent upon parents (or other care givers). Even before intelligent speech, parents can sometimes differentiate between the infant's different cries: e.g., hunger, diaper changing, something hurts, trying not to go to sleep, etc.

The what? "Jesus is the Messiah. The Son of the living God." It is clear that in the chapters prior to our text, Jesus' words and deeds have proclaimed him as the Messiah for those with eyes to see and hears to hear. However, coming to that understanding about Jesus is not something we do ourselves. Even Jesus' cousin and great prophet, John the Baptist had troubles understanding this about Jesus. Proper understanding and proper faith in Jesus comes as a gift from God. As Luther put it in the Small Catechism: "I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him."

This is very similar to Step One of the 12-Step programs: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol/drugs/etc. -- that our lives had become unmanageable."

Or, as I have often stated in these notes: repentance is an "I can't" experience. Can you imagine America declaring that it can't do something or that it is powerless over something? American attitude is more like, "If we only had more money and people, we could win the war on drugs." Presently there is the "good news" that we will win the war against terrorism -- that the day will come when no American will fear any terrorist attacks, but it will take time, and money, and some inconveniences. Perhaps I'm too pessimistic, but I believe that the power of sin is stronger than America's great wisdom and intelligence. The human demand for and creative ways of producing and distributing illegal drugs will continue. Human fears and anger at others will continually rear its ugly head in violent and terroristic ways.

My hunch is that the "wise and intelligent" and those in the Jewish towns who felt that they were the privileged children of God, are also those who are unable to admit their powerlessness or their inabilities. On our own, we cannot fully know [epiginosko] the Father (v. 27). It can only come as a revelation from the son. Epiginosko can imply a deeper or more thorough knowledge than ginosko. While one might know [ginosko] about God through many means (Rom 1:21; see also Mt 25:24, one can only know "the Father" (or God as Father?) more thoroughly [epiginosko] through the revelation of God in Jesus. Can we claim to be a Christian nation when we've removed Jesus from our (civil) religion?

These verses also give a reason why Jesus does what he does even though God has hidden the truth from the wise and intelligent, and why the disciples are sent on a mission to the "lost sheep" even though they won't listen. "It is well pleasing [eudokia] to God."

How do we guide congregations or individuals to do what is pleasing to God, even if there seems to be little chance of success? How do we let God's will determine a congregation's deeds, rather than the powerful influences of the often unenlightened "wise and intelligent" members (and their money)? How do we convince congregations that they have to continue to be in mission, even if there is no success as defined as getting more members and/or receiving more money. Can we redefine "success" for a congregation as being faithful and obedient in proclaiming the gospel in word and deeds, even if no one responds?

A new image occurs in v. 28 with those who "are weary and are carrying heavy burdens".

The word for "weary" [kopiao] generally means "to be engaged in hard work, implying difficulties and trouble." As a result of that hard work, one may be "tired or weary." It also takes on a non-physical, figurative meaning: "to become emotionally fatigued and discouraged," e.g., "to give up, to lose heart".

The words for "burden" [v. 28 = phortizo; v. 30 = phortion] come from the word for a ship's cargo [phortos]. Generally in the NT, they are used symbolically of the burden of keeping the law. Both words are used in Luke 11:46: And Jesus said, "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them."

Matthew criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason in 23:4: "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."

Jesus promises "rest" [v. 28 anapauo; v. 29 anapausis]. This may be related to Jeremiah 6:16

Thus says the LORD:
Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.

However, the LXX uses a different word for "rest" -- agnismos = "purification" (Heb. has margo`a -- only occurrence in OT).

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes:

Rest cannot happen under imperial domination (Deut 28:65; Lam 5:5) but means the removal of that power. Rome's rule is fated. God's rest is the creation vision of Gen 2:2-3, in which God, after creating, rests, with all creation in just relationship with God and itself. Only with God's transforming intervention can such a world be created. Eschatological visions anticipate a return to the beginning, which ends all oppressive and death-bringing activity and reestablishes God's empire and rest. ... [p. 259]

Jesus' rest is not doing nothing (compare the disciples "sleeping and resting" in 26:45, but means taking a yoke [zygos], which may have allusions to Sirach 51:23-27 where we are to be yoked to wisdom.

Draw near to me, you who are uneducated,
and lodge in the house of instruction.
why do you say you are lacking in these things,
and why do you endure such great thirst!
I opened my mouth and said,
Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money.
Put your neck under her yoke
and let your souls receive instruction;
it is to be found close by.
See with your own eyes that I have labored but little
and found for myself much serenity.

Jesus' yoke is described as "easy" [chrestos -- only one letter different from christos = "Christ"]. This word does not mean "not strenuous," but

1. "being superior for a particular purpose or use"

old wine is better than new wine (see Lu 5:39). Jesus may be saying that his yoke is better than any other yoke.

2. "being useful and benevolent, being good"

"Bad company ruins good morals" (1C 15:33). Jesus may be saying that his yoke is more beneficial than others.

3. "being kind"

"Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" Romans 2:4. Jesus may be saying that his yoke is kinder than any other yoke.

4. "being pleasant or easy, with the implication of suitability"

Jesus may be saying that his yoke fits us well -- it is suitable for our human condition and abilities. Perhaps like a couple "who are made for each other" -- being good and kind to each other is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the other. They don't have to "should on" each other.

We are also to "learn" [manthano] from Jesus. From Hare:

It is possible that "learn from me" means more than simply "listen to my teaching." T. W. Manson (The Teaching of Jesus, pp. 239-240) proposes that as a designation for his disciples Jesus selected an Aramaic word that meant not "pupils" but "apprentices." From him they were to learn not merely to think but to do. They were to learn not only by listening but by watching. If Manson is correct, the metaphor of the yoke attains a new force. The yoke is not one that Jesus imposes but one he wears! We remember that commonly a yoke was a wooden instrument that yoked two oxen together and made of them a team. In this word Jesus may be saying: "Become my yoke mate, and learn how to pull the load by working beside me and watching how I do it. The heavy labor will seem lighter when you allow me to help you with it." [p. 129]

Manthano [from which comes mathetes" = disciple], can mean "to learn from instruction" and/or "to learn from experience".

I've talked with pastors who require a layperson to accompany them on visits to potential members, to the sick, to the care facilities, to the hospital, etc. They use the term "mentoring," when talking about this way of teaching members to minister to one another. I mentioned this to my council. One responded quickly, "I'd ask, 'What are we paying the pastor for'?" After further thinking, I think that I would respond with, "You are paying me, in part, to teach you to be disciples. It is like paying a driving instructor to teach your child to drive a car. If the instructor does all the driving, the child won't learn." Learning from Jesus has to be more than just "head knowledge." It is being mentored into discipleship by other disciples. Related to what I wrote at the beginning, deeds are important -- not as a means of salvation, but as witnesses to our faith in Jesus.

What's the difference between the burdensome keeping of the law and the restful, easy, and light keeping of the law? (I am assuming that Jesus isn't commanding us not to keep the law.)

The burdensome law is when I feel that I have to do something in order to get something from God. An illustration might be the child who reluctantly cleans his/her room because s/he will get (for a time) an end of the repeated nagging of mother (or father) about cleaning the room, and/or a reprieve of the punishment for not cleaning the room, and/or an allowance for following the parent's rules.

In contrast to this "burden," a child might willingly clean his/her room, without any nagging or threats or payments, to honor mother on mother's day. The child may even go beyond the "command," to clean his/her bedroom and clean the whole house as a sign of thankfulness and love and appreciation for all that mom has done for her/him. Although the deed of cleaning the room is the same in both scenarios , the burden of "You have to do this" (to avoid punishment or to gain a reward) is gone. Perhaps too simplistic, but that burden is replaced with, "I want to do this (out of gratitude)." This implies a difference in motivations and a difference in the relationship with the mother (at least for the one day).

This easily leads to different ways of defining sin. In the first scene, sin would be ignoring or disobeying the rules. In the second scene, sin is connected to inner motivations and, more importantly, one's relationship with the parents. Why wouldn't a child want to clean his/her room in response to the parents' love? The answers to that question define another and deeper aspect of our sin. Similarly, we can ask, "Why wouldn't a Christian want to live a disciplined and evangelical life out of gratitude for all that God has done for us in Christ?" Answers to that question illustrate a deeper aspect of our sin -- our separation from God.

However, Jesus' preaching and deeds keep telling us about God's love and care for us. How we respond is up to us. So it is with our preaching about God's love and care for the people.

Another way of phrasing the difference is with these questions: "What do you have to do to be saved?" The burden for salvation is placed on us. Vs. "You are saved" (or "God has saved you through Jesus")! The burden of salvation has already been borne by Jesus. What are you going to do?"

Finally, Jesus is described as gentle and humble -- quite a contrast to the arrogant, privileged attitude of the unrepentant cities, and those who consider themselves "wise and intelligent." Do we really want a gentle, lowly, humble savior and lord of our lives? Perhaps not, but that's why our belief in Jesus has to come as a gift -- a revelation from God.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran, Marysville, CA